The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte

POKER FLAT BRET HARTE

If you like playing Red Dead Redemption, if you enjoyed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I recommend “The Outcasts of Poker Flat“, a short story by Bret Harte, published in the late 1800s as the century was coming to a close.

This short story was adapted for film in 1919, 1937 and again in 1952.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat movie poster

But the version with the highest rating on IMDb is the latest one — a TV movie from 1958. Good luck finding it, though.

Then [in 2009-10] the composer Andrew E. Simpson wrote a one-act chamber opera dramatizing the story. It was performed most recently in 2012 (to positive reviews), and from the summary appears to follow the source material much more closely than any of the cinematic adaptations.

Poker and Pop

This story remains interesting to a contemporary audience for its reminder that we thought quite differently about what it takes to live a good life, just 120 years ago. I really enjoyed most of it, though I want to rewrite the ending.

Content note for suicide, with a large dose of sexism near the end.

STORY WORLD OF “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”

The setting is a very specific November 22 1850, in a town called Poker Flat, in Northwestern California.

There are two towns that are known as “Poker Flat” in California: one that is located in Calaveras County and one that is located in the Sierra County near in the Sierra Nevada. While there has been minor dispute over which Poker Flat Harte’s story is set in, it likely depicts the latter town in Sierra County because Harte’s characters are forced to traverse part of the Sierra mountain range.

Owl Eyes

Here it is on Google Earth, if you’re viewing this in Chrome. There’s not much there now — but I do spy one ambiguous human structure. I hope there’s at least a plaque which mentions the short story.

I’m thinking of a town a bit like Deadwood (South Dakota) — full of men, drinking and gambling, without the moderating influence of ‘Sabbath’. The illegal town of Deadwood popped up 20 years after this story is set, comprising squatters after gold, and the services around them. While Deadwood has remained in our collective memory as a lawless, wild Western town, there must have been many more like it.

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The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce

The Damned Thing Ambrose Bierce

Hard to remember now, but ‘damned’ used to be a full on swear word. A teacher at high school once pounced on me for using it (though by the 1990s I think she was being ridiculous). ‘Damned’ was certainly shocking 100 years earlier than that, in 1893, when Ambrose Bierce published his horror short story and called it “The Damned Thing”.

It’s out of copyright and you can read “The Damned Thing” at Project Gutenberg (3,233 words).

TYPES OF TERROR

Stephen King has spoken of three types of terror:

The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there …”

— Stephen King

“The Damned Thing” belongs to the second category — the horror, describing the mutilated body. But by the end of the story, Bierce has moved into the realm of terror. The scariest thing of all is something we cannot see.

This is exactly the sort of terror/horror parodied by the podcast (and book) Welcome To Night Vale. From episode 2 of Night Vale (“Glow Cloud”):

Apparently the cloud glows in a variety of colors, perhaps changing from observer to observer, although all report a low whistling when it draws near.

episode 2 transcript

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Champion by Ring Lardner

two men one in foreground boxing one in background his manager

Champion” is a short story by Ringgold Lardner, who was an American sports columnist as well as a short story writer. He had three main subjects: sports, marriage and theatre.

Lardner’s family was wealthy, he had to wear a brace on his foot until age eleven, he and his one wife had four sons and he died age 48 due to tuberculosis.

“Champion” is a rags-to-riches story.

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The Wrestler Film Appearance vs. Reality

The Wrestler film poster

The Wrestler (2008) directed by Darren Aronofsky remains one of the best, and also one of the saddest, films I’ve seen. Though their archive of reviews has been removed, I’m pretty sure Australia’s Margaret and David both gave the film five out of five stars.

Logline: A faded professional wrestler must retire, but finds his quest for a new life outside the ring a dispiriting struggle.

The Wrestler is a tale of self-destruction, but self-destruction with thematic purpose. Its raison d’être is not simple masochistic pleasure — this is a critique of entertainment industries, among other things. Most of the audience is neither a wrestler nor a sex worker. This story takes the concept of masks and work life (im)balance to create a widely relatable story.

The part of Randy the Ram was written for Mickey Rourke, inspired by the emotional arc of Mickey’s life (though we almost got stuck with Nicholas Cage). Cage agreed to the role once Rourke seemed unable to play it for obscure Hollywood reasons, but soon realised he’d never get bulky enough without resorting to steroids himself. Cage didn’t want to compromise his own health in that way. So the part went back to Mickey somehow.

Mickey Rourke didn’t write the story — that was Robert Siegel — but he did rewrite his own dialogue with the director’s permission. I’ve no doubt this is part of the film’s success. Writer Robert Siegel has also written a kids’ film about a snail (Turbo) and a baseball film starring Patton Oswald (Big Fan). The Wrestler is his standout success as a writer so far.

CONTENT NOTE

I watch this film through my fingers. If you have sensory issues around cutting, blood, needles etc. you will find the wrestling sequences of this film a challenge. But if you can watch them (and not just listen, as I did), apparently the pro wrestling is real, not just realistic. The actors are real-life wrestlers, and it turns out — happily — they can also act. This should be no surprise, since pro wrestling turns out to be a form of acting in its own right.

I also find this film so affecting that it stays with me for days. If you’re not up for that, avoid avoid avoid.

The reasons for all those details, by the way, becomes clear to me after reading something about storytelling by Celeste Ng, who read a whole lot of stories in quick succession for a project she was curating. She had this to say about the forgettable ones:

Why didn’t [many stories I read] work? Partway through a story about a couple at a party, secretly struggling with infertility and on the verge of falling apart, I realized something: the characters should have been desperately sad, but no one in the story actually seemed to feel much of anything. […] enough wasn’t said.  Those stories, and that shorthand, ask the reader to do all the work—of figuring out how the characters are feeling; actually, of feeling, period.  They assumed you knew what it felt like to be cheated on, or to lose a loved one—and that you’d feel the same way the characters did.  The authors seemed to hope you’d project your own feelings onto the character, creating instant depth, like a 3-D movie.  But what does that make the characters, and the story?  A blank screen. […] The best stories—the ones I still remember, months or even years after reading them, the ones that punched holes in my heart—didn’t assume anything. They didn’t use shorthand; they spelled out those feelings with painfully sharp details, so that by the end, you did almost know what it was like.
Celeste Ng

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) is a short story by American humorist James Thurber. The story has been adapted several times for film, most recently in 2013. I haven’t seen the films but it’s interesting someone financed feature length movies out of a story so short — “Walter Mitty” is 2,512 words.

Brokeback Mountain” is a short story adapted far more successfully for film (though not according to Annie Proulx, because they butchered the main message). “Brokeback Mountain” is a capacious, novelistic short story, and and gives the director far more to work with, coming in at 9,135 words.

My theory is that sometimes short stories (and picture books) are simply too short to fill a feature length film. Scriptwriters must artificially bulk them out. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make money out of short films, which they probably should be.

A reviewer at The New Yorker is rather more optimistic about this than I am:

The great thing about adapting a short story rather than a novel is that it demands expansion rather than reduction—it’s a springboard, not a blueprint.

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I’m A Fool by Sherwood Anderson

“I’m A Fool”(1922) is a short story written by American Sherwood Anderson, who was born around the time Lonesome Dove is set, and who died at the beginning of the second world war. So, he came along at the end of the cowboy days, lived through one world war and was heading into another.

Anderson had four wives during his relatively short life. I’m immediately suspicious of a man who has had four marriages. “I’m A Fool” demonstrates a possessive, objectifying attitude towards a woman character which isnt challenged. This doesn’t improve my impression of the writer. To understand this story the reader must also understand that being attracted to a woman and not acting on those strong feelings is about one of the worst things that can happen to a man. If this story were a contemporary song, it’d be “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt (2004). A young man catches sight of a pretty woman on a train, can’t be with her and is sad forever that he can’t have her. All because she smiled at her.

James Blunt swears he’s got ‘a plan’ but never tells us what that plan is, making the narrative arc incomplete. Like the narrator of “I’m A Fool”, Blunt spends the entire music video punishing himself physically, in this case by taking off all his clothes in the snow, laying out all his pocket possessions and jumping (probably to his death) into the sea below.

Sherwood Anderson’s own young life working various jobs will have influenced this story, about a young man who also feels he has little in common with more sheltered boys of his own age. I recently rewatched Terminator 2, and the very annoying kid in that movie has the same superiority complex of a boy who has been let loose on the ‘real’ world and immediately starts dividing between men and boys, putting himself in the category of man, prematurely.

Sometimes now I think that boys who are raised regular in houses, and never have a fine nigger like Burt for best friend, and go to high schools and college, and never steal anything, or get drunk a little, or learn to swear from fellows who know how, or come walking up in front of a grandstand in their shirt sleeves and with dirty horsey pants on when the races are going on and the grandstand is full of people all dressed up—what’s the use of talking about it? Such fellows don’t know nothing at all. They’ve never had no opportunity.

Some think Sherwood Anderson is a genius. Others think he’s mediocre. Mark Twain did the first person vernacular style first. Every English speaking country has their own iconic male writer of the early 20th century who got famous for daring to write in the regional working man’s vernacular. There’s Frank Sargeson of my own home country (New Zealand). In 1935, Sargeson wrote a piece in a New Zealand liberal newspaper in praise of Anderson’s literary devices. I had to study Sargeson at high school, so it’s interesting to see his main influence. I don’t remember Sherwood Anderson ever mentioned. New Zealand likes to think Sargeson was wholly original in coming up with the idea of eschewing that fancy book learnin language for normal everyday speech.

Anderson also influenced Hemingway and Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth.

I don’t get a ‘genius’ vibe from this snippet of Anderson’s oeuvre. But I sure am sick of stories about the regrets of men who don’t get to do exactly what they want to with their dicks. Especially when it’s for being dicks.

Apparently, Sherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick. This mode of death is trumped only by Margaret Wise Brown, who died after kicking up her leg to show doctors how well she (ostensibly) was. In any case, I’ll be very careful with toothpicks from now on. And I won’t be kicking any legs up in hospital, either.

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The Leader of the People by John Steinbeck

The Leader of the People

The Red Pony (1933) by John Steinbeck is described as an episodic novella, or interconnected short stories. “The Leader of the People” is one of those stories.

I really enjoyed this story from The Golden Argosy collection (as recommended by Stephen King), as it still feels fresh. The viewpoint of the young boy is great, and when the ‘camera’ zooms out, there’s a real sense of place. The descriptions of the boy’s body language beats and play are very well done.

Also, Steinbeck is making wonderful use of a technique all writers can use: The miniature in storytelling. In fact, this is your archetypal example of it.

STORYWORLD OF “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”

Set on a farm.

High in the air small clouds like puffs of cannon smoke were driven eastward by the March wind. The wind could be heard whishing in the brush on the ridge crests, but no breath of it penetrated down into the ranch cup.

White pigeons, a cypress tree, haystacks full of mice, barbed wire fences, surrounded by mountains. Dogs, squirrels, road runners and at night, large moths throw themselves at the windows. In the daytime, the heavy smell of sage. Ants and flies.

There’s a Pied Piper feel about this storyworld:

Those plump, sleek, arrogant mice were doomed. For eight months the had lived and multiplied in the haystack. they had been immune from cats, from traps, from poison and from Jody.

This is a bifurcated storyworld — the mountains seem ominous. Billy glances towards them as if there may be trouble. This juxtaposes against the utopian description of the side-hill:

Jody turned back and looked at the side-hill where the road from the outside world came down. the hill was washed with lean March sunshine. Silver thistles, blue lupins and a few poppies bloomed among the sage bushed.

Nearby we have the Horseshoe Club in Pacific Grove, which tells us this is in California. (East of where the father-in-law has settled.) By climbing the little cleft where the road comes through, Jody can see the huge green Salinas Valley.

Salinas Valley

Inside, the mother prepares beans, they eat steak and beans at a white oilcloth table, the room lit by a lamp with a tin reflector. Mother rings a triangle to alert the farmworkers when their meals are ready. They eat sugared mush for breakfast.

FAMILY DYNAMICS

The parents are harsh on Jody by modern standards. Jody expresses excitement that his father has arrived home carrying a letter, so he runs inside to spread that excitement to his mother. But he is chastised and humiliated for failing to mind his own business. A modern parent would encourage the kid’s enthusiasm — after all, this is his own grandfather coming to stay. This is his business. Are these parents typical of the era, or are these especially harsh characters? In any case, they’re training him into a certain variety of masculinity, in which a boy expresses no emotion apart from anger and disapproval.

This is a time when kids are supposed to be kept busy, or else they’ll turn out lazy or get themselves into trouble. The mother admonishes the father for not giving him enough jobs to do. Today, we consider play the main job of children. And that is shown here — only by trying to engage the grandfather in play does Jody have the Self-revelation and grow up a little.

THE MINIATURE IN STORYTELLING

It becomes clear that Steinbeck is using a tried and tested writing technique — he’s playing with our perception of scale to encourage us to consider what’s really important in life. First he gave us the mountains juxtaposed against the much smaller (and pleasant) side-hill. The small boy’s enthusiasm juxtaposes against the solemn, grim demeanour of his parents, and when the boy meets his grandfather the mice are coming in  handy, symbolically:

Jody explained, “The dogs eat them, sir. It wouldn’t be much like hunting Indians I guess.”

“No, not much-but then later, when the troops were hunting Indians and shooting children and burning tepees, it wasn’t much different from you mouse hunt.”

Later, when Jody is lying in bed, Steinbeck expands upon the idea that the Wild West, with heroic Cowboys and warring Indians looms large in contemporary (1930s) minds:

Jody lay in his bed and thought of the impossible world of Indians and buffaloes, a world that had ceased to be forever. He wished he could have been living in the heroic time, but he knew he was not of heroic timber. No one living now, save possibly Billy Buck, was worthy to do the things that had been done. A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of a staunchness unknown in this day. Jody thought of the wide plains and of the wagons moving across like centipedes. He thought of Grandfather on a huge white horse, marshaling the people. Across his mind marched the great phantoms, and they marched off the earth and they were gone.

Later, after Jody’s father dismisses the grandfather, the old man looks literally smaller in Jody’s young eyes:

Jody turned disconsolately away, and walked down toward the old haystack. He tried to whip up his enthusiasm with thoughts of the fat juicy mice. He beat the ground with his flail. the dogs coaxed and whined about him, but he could not go. Back at the house he could see Grandfather sitting on the porch, looking small and thin and black.

Notice also how Steinbeck has listed the animal life all the way through the story, starting with the large animals (the horses, the dogs, the squirrels) and working his way down to the moths (last night) and now he describes the flies, then the ants. Everything is shrinking in Jody’s eyes as Jody grows more mature, by observing the interaction between the men, especially.

CHARACTERS IN “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”

Billy Buck — The middle-aged ranch-hand. Black hat. His father was called Muletail Buck because he packed mules. Though a ranch hand wouldn’t normally shave mid week, he has shaved to meet the Grandfather, because the Grandfather holds him in high esteem. The Grandfather admires that he’s one of the few men who has not ‘gone soft’. (This feels like an accusation every older generation levels against every younger generation of men.)

Jody Tiflin— A spirited, enthusiastic little boy who finds excitement in small things. He tries to do the right thing.

Carl Tiflin — Jody’s father. At the start of the story he is away riding up the ridge of one of the surrounding mountains. Left after dinner (probably the midday meal).

Mrs. Tiflin — Jody’s mother. Inside shelling or chopping beans into a pan. Steinbeck doesn’t give her a first name. She is important to the story only as the mother, daughter and wife.

Mrs. Tiflin’s father — Steinbeck makes us curious about this old man by showing characters talking about him before he arrives on the scene. We learn that he talks only of Indians, and crossing the plains. He repeats the same stories about how the horses got driven off. Earlier in his life he led a wagon train across the plains to the coast. That was his life’s achievement. He was born for that job. But once he got to the ocean there was no more West left. So he settled by the ocean in Monterey.

Then he does turn up and we get the following description:

The grandfather was dressed in a black broad cloth suit and he wore kid congress gaiters and a black tie on a short, hard collar. He carried his black slouch hat in his hand. His white beard was cropped close and his white eyebrows overhung his eyes like moustaches. the blue eyes were sternly merry. About the whole face and figure there was a granite dignity, so that every motion seemed an impossible thing. Once at rest, it seemed the old man would be stone, would never move again. His steps wee slow and certain. Once made, not step could ever be traced; once headed in a direction, the path would never ben nor the pace increase nor slow.

Double-tree Mutt — the black dog. Likes to dig in squirrel holes. Doesn’t realise that dogs don’t catch squirrels by digging holes. There’s another dog as well. They have fleas.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”

A little boy is excited to learn that his grandfather is coming to say. His father, not so much. The old man goes on and on about the short time in his life when he was in his element — leading a band across the prairie to California.

The old man turns up, and sure enough, tells the same old stories. Only the little boy is interested, though he, too, has heard all these stories before. Steinbeck doesn’t bother telling us much of the stories, on the understanding that everyone coming to this short story in 1933 knows the basics of Western expansion. So he summarises:

Jody knew in advance exactly what words would fall. the story droned on, speeded up for the attack, grew sad over the wounds, struck a dirge at the burials and the great plains.

At breakfast, the old man overhears his son-in-law complaining about him telling the same old stories, so he takes a moment outside to reflect. He talks to the grandson, and explains the reason for telling the stories — to underscore the importance of collective spirit, not to revel in the glory of it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE”

WEAKNESS/NEED

The shifting third-person narration does the rounds, but settles most often on the highly empathetic young Jody. Much of the story is filtered through his point of view. Even when it isn’t, directly, the narrator describes things Jody would notice. In this way, “The Leader of the People” is a bit like “What Maisie Knew”, a novel by Henry James first published 1897. I suspect Steinbeck was influenced by James.

It seems Jody is quite isolated on that farm — there are no other kids to join him in his games, so his best hope is persuading an old man to join him.

Jody isn’t especially empathetic, either. He sees the mice purely as opponents to be conquered. Though is father has a more nuanced and grim view of the wars between the whites and the native peoples, Jody is yet to learn any of it. He’s all about the sticks and the guns. By the end of the story he’ll have a slightly more nuanced view on American history.

DESIRE

Jody wants to listen to his grandfather tell exciting stories about cowboys and Indians. then he wants to engage him in his own farm-sized Battle between himself and the mice, though the mice are only into haystacks that are no longer any use, and hurting no one.

OPPONENT

The mother is positioned as Jody’s opposition because she is not playful and she also sees through his motivations.

The father is an even bigger opposition because, as Steinbeck describes, everything Jody does has to be run by him first.

As far as Jody’s concerned, his play opponents, in his miniature world, are the mice.

PLAN

Jody will encourage his grandfather to tell stories, then coax him into the mouse hunting game.

BATTLE

This is an interesting technique I’m noticing a lot–the Battle promised is not the Battle we get. In this story, Jody is all about the big fight between himself, the dogs and the mice in the haystacks. Ostensibly, Steinbeck leads the story towards that. First the cast members turn up, then Jody finds a stick… we see the dogs on a mission for squirrels, so we know the actors involved.

But there is no mouse catching scene. That Battle is purely symbolic. Instead we get the awkward scene at the breakfast table, where the old man overhears his son-in-law. (The exact same plot point is used in “Old Man Minick” by Edna Ferber). We know this is the real, structural Battle because the Self-revelations follow swiftly after.

SELF-REVELATION

Both the old man and the little boy have their own Self-revelation, in keeping with the gigantic/miniatures theme Steinbeck’s got going on.

The old man overhears his son-in-law and realises the time for those stories is gone, or rather, people mistake his reason for telling those stories. He doesn’t mean to turn himself into a hero. He means to convey the idea that ‘It was a whole bunch of people make into one big crawling beast.’

Here’s Jody’s more naive Self-revelation:

Jody changed his course and moved toward the house. He leaned his fail against the steps. “That’s to drive the mice out,” he said. “I’ll bet they’re fat. I’ll bet they don’t know what’s going to happen to them today.”

No, nor you either,” Billy remarked philosophically, “nor me, nor anyone.”

Jody was staggered by this thought. He knew it was true. His imagination twitched away from the mouse hunt. Then his mother came out on the back porch and struck the triangle and all thoughts fell in a heap.

The Self-revelation for the reader is that Western expansion was expansion for the sake of expansion. Pretty much every ‘Western’ since WW2 has been ‘anti-Western’ rather than Western — highlighting the fruitlessness and misery of American expansionism rather than the glory. So Steinbeck is slightly ahead of his time in writing a Western story (story within a story) in which an old man looks back on his life as a pioneer and sees it in a deterministic, pessimistic way:

But it wasn’t getting here that mattered, it was movement and westering.

Then, in case we missed it, Steinbeck gives us some dialogue which directly compares the futility of human expansionism to the industry of ants.

We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs.

I’ll argue the mother and father have their own minor revelations as well: Carl learns that he’s better off letting the old man speak; the mother learns that her little boy has matured somewhat overnight, asking for a lemon for Grandfather’s lemonade, when previously he used the excuse of Grandfather to get away with doing things he might not ordinarily be allowed to do.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Everyone in this extended family has changed a little, and they’ll probably get along a little better now.

Paul’s Case by Willa Cather

Paul's Case

As a New Zealander, I have a longterm interest in Katherine Mansfield. I’m coming late to American Willa Cather, but the first thing I notice is that she was writing short stories in the same era as Mansfield. Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather wrote novels as well as short stories. Cather lived a full life, to the age of 73. Mansfield died of tuberculosis age 34. Many have wondered if Mansfield would have eventually written novels had she lived longer, but I feel this wondering is afflicted by the belief that novels are somehow a ‘graduation’ of the short story. Short stories are an art form in their own right. Many successful novelists find short stories impossible.

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